The first rule of the draft is: I don’t know anything about the draft.
The beauty of baseball is how so much of it is accessible to the informed outsider. I love football, but I couldn’t tell you 90% of what goes on in any given play. The teams themselves don’t know half of what’s going on, at least not in the moment, which is why they watch so much tape afterwards and guard the overhead 11-on-11 videos from the public like they’re state secrets.
The easy quantification of baseball makes it possible for someone like me to know what is going on. Maybe I don’t know how or why, but I know what. It allows me to opine on the abilities of players and the sensibilities of tactics without coming off as a complete moron. (A partial moron, sure.)
But the draft is still a black box. Yes, we have stats. But high school stats are essentially meaningless; college stats aren’t much better. It’s the most important aspect of baseball that is impervious to statistical analysis. So my opinions here are even more speculative than my other ones.
I can’t talk about the draft without mentioning the elephant in the room, which is that the new CBA completely changes the draft, even if no one knows exactly how. In essence, the Royals have a draft cap, and their cap is different from that of every other team. Signability is no longer an excuse to keep from spending money – it’s a very real issue. (Even if the reason that the draft cap was put in place was to keep teams from spending money.)
My opinions on the new draft rules are complex, and require a column of their own, whether it’s here or at Grantland. The short analysis is this: I disagree with the conventional wisdom that states that the new draft rules hurt small-market teams that spend in the draft, i.e. the Royals. The CW is based on the assumption that if the old draft rules had stayed in place, that the Royals and Pirates could have kept outspending higher-revenue teams in the draft ad infinitum.
Which is kind of ridiculous. I’m fairly certain that other teams subscribe to Baseball America, and are aware that the Royals built The Best Farm System Ever largely by being willing to spend big dollars in the draft. That would have encouraged other teams to spend more, and it did – last year teams spent more money than they ever have in the draft. The dollars would have spiraled to the point where eventually even the Royals wouldn’t have been able to keep up.
I don’t think the new draft rules are fair, in the sense that I think it’s fair to dictate to a player not just where is he going to play for the next decade, but for how much money, take it or leave it. But I don’t think the new draft rules are tilted against small-market teams.
But it definitely introduces a new wrinkle.
The Royals draft fifth overall this year, which is probably as good a place to draft as any. It’s been a long time since the very top of the draft was as scrambled as it is this year. There have been years where there was no clear choice for the Royals, as it was two years ago, when they didn’t commit to Christian Colon until about half an hour before the draft started. (The rumor, of course, was that until then they were planning to take…Chris Sale. Forget the we-should-have-drafted-Tim-Lincecum revisionist history – Chris Sale may prove to be The One Who Got Away.) But that year, the top three players were clear – Bryce Harper, Jameson Taillon, and Manny Machado, the last two players in either order. It’s just that the Royals were drafting fourth.
This year, no one knows yet who the Astros will take #1, and no one knows who the Astros should take #1. There are seven or eight players who seem to stand out from the pack, but all of them are flawed in some way. If it weren’t for the new draft rules – which allow the Astros to spend twice as much money at #1 as the Royals can at #5 – you’d almost rather pick fifth. But the Astros can work out a deal for that #1 pick and use the extra draft cap space later in the draft.
The final thing to remember is that this year’s draft is, to be kind, below-average. It’s not quite 2000-level bad (Adam Johnson! Luis Montanez! Mike Stodolka! Justin Wayne! Believe it or not, those are the players selected #2, #3, #4, and #5 overall – and the Royals only picked one of them!), but it’s a huge dropoff from last season. The first eight players selected last year would all have a chance to go #1 this year. The #5 pick this year is roughly as valuable as a mid-first-rounder was last year.
But the middle of last year’s first round included some gems; Jose Fernandez, who the Marlins selected #14 overall, is one of the best prospects in the game now. There’s talent there; it’s just not clear where it is. Given the Royals’ track record, given the lack of a clear can’t-miss type in this draft, and given the new wrinkle of the draft cap, I would find it almost impossible to rip the Royals for their first-round pick, no matter who it is. At least not right away.
Presenting the candidates:
The Guys That Won’t Be There
There are two guys who are 98% certain to be taken before the Royals pick. That I’m not 100% certain they’ll be gone is why I need to list them:
Mark Appel, a right-hander out of Stanford, is generally considered the best college starting pitcher in this draft. The full package is there: upper 90s fastball, a very good slider, and a solid changeup. The knock on him is that his numbers have never quite matched his stuff; last year, he gave up over a hit an inning and struck out just 86 batters in 110 innings for the Cardinal. This year, though, he’s got a 2.27 ERA in 119 innings, with 92 hits allowed and a K/BB ratio of 127 to 26. That’s not Strasburgian, but it’s very good. He reminds me of a slightly toned-down version of Gerrit Cole, the #1 pick in last year’s draft, and Appel is currently the favorite to go #1 to the Astros this year.
Byron Buxton, a quintessential five-tool outfielder out of a Georgia high school, is the Bubba Starling of this draft, if Starling had a touch less power, a touch more speed and a slightly better hit tool, and was black. The more common comparison is to one of the Upton brothers. Like the Uptons, Buxton is unlikely to fall past the #2 pick overall, but the final-hour chatter around this draft is so up-in-the-air that I could see a scenario where he drops to #5.
The Guys That Might Be There
Kevin Gausman, a right-hander from LSU, might be the best college pitcher in the country on the right day. He doesn’t throw quite as hard as Appel, but hard enough, and he has an excellent changeup. Neither his curveball nor slider have distinguished themselves yet, but even so, he’s an easy Top 10 pick. His numbers at LSU this year are almost indistinguishable from Appel’s (2.72 ERA, 116 IP, 100 H, 27 BB, 128 K). He’s a draft-eligible sophomore, but don’t let that fool you – he’s actually six months older than Appel, who’s a junior.
Gausman would be a fine pick for a team with a need for close-to-the-majors pitching, and indeed he was the player most linked to Kansas City as recently as a week ago. Recent developments suggest he may go to Baltimore at #4, which would be the third year in a row that the Orioles, drafting one slot ahead of the Royals, took the guy they wanted. (Two years ago, it was Machado, which was a no-brainer. Last year, it was Dylan Bundy, who Nate Bukaty has reported had a deal already worked out with the Royals if he had made it to #5. That hurts.)
If Gausman isn’t there, there’s a good chance that the Royals will take…
Kyle Zimmer, a right-hander from the University of San Francisco, who might be the best college pitcher in the country on the right day. Zimmer didn’t even start pitching until college, but over the past year has elevated his draft stock as much as anyone in the country. Unlike Gausman, he has a fantastic curveball, but his changeup needs work. He doesn’t turn 21 until September, and the combination of relative youth and relative inexperience on the mound suggests there’s more to come. For a guy with so little experience pitching, he has uncanny polish – he has excellent command, fields his position well, all that good stuff.
The problem is that he’s had a mild hamstring injury which has limited him down the stretch – he’s only thrown 88 innings this year, with 104 Ks against 17 walks – and his velocity was also down late in the year, around 91 mph instead of his usual 94-95. It’s possible – even likely – that the two are related, and that his velocity will bounce back once he’s fully healed. But it’s enough of a concern that after being talked about as a probable #3 or #4 pick, he’s likely to be there when the Royals pick, and may drop further than that – Dayton Moore was in attendance for Zimmer’s final start of the year, and he got rocked.
If the Royals are convinced that Zimmer’s struggles are transient, he could be a steal at the #5 spot – not just for his talent, but that as a college pitcher with a lot of polish, he could fill the Royals’ needs perfectly and be in their rotation quickly. But it’s also possible that he’s already peaked, that his velocity won’t return – particularly when he’s throwing every five days instead of once a week – and the Royals will quickly find that they took a #4 starter with the #5 pick. I’ll give the Royals the benefit of the doubt on the gamble, but it’s a gamble.
This leads me to the most – maybe only – important point I want to make: the Royals can not draft for need. Let me repeat that: don’t draft for need. It’s such a basic point, and yet here we are, with the Royals trying to win with a patchwork rotation, and people are screaming “THEY HAVE TO TAKE A PITCHER!”
No. They. Don’t.
I don’t mean to be patronizing, but this isn’t the NFL, guys. Whoever the Royals take isn’t going to magically be ready to help the major league team right away. In the history of the draft, you can probably count the guys who could contribute at the major-league level on Draft Day on your fingers. Bob Horner. Dave Winfield. Pete Incaviglia, maybe. Stephen Strasburg, if they had let him.
So you’re not going to draft anyone who can solve the Royals’ rotation problems today, or at any point in 2012. Okay, you say, but how about 2013? The Royals could win in 2013 if they can just improve their rotation, and a college pitcher might do just that.
To which I say: if there’s a pitcher in this draft who could be in a major-league rotation this time next year, he shouldn’t fall to #5. There might be one or two of those guys in a typical draft, and this isn’t even a typical draft. Strasburg was in the majors a year after he was picked. Tim Lincecum was as well, and he went #10 overall, and if there’s a Tim Lincecum in this draft who falls to #5, then Hallelujah. But you can’t plan on that.
NONE of these guys – not Zimmer, not Gausman, not even Appel – can be expected to be major-league ready until late in the 2013 season, if not 2014. Danny Duffy is likely to be starting in the majors again before any of them. For that matter, Jake Odorizzi and John Lamb would probably beat them to the majors as well. (I’ve stopped making any kind of projections about Mike Montgomery. He’s like the Luke Hochevar of the farm system.)
Okay, you say, but the Royals are still going to need starting pitching in 2014, and it’s better that the Royals draft a guy who could be in their rotation in 2014 then a player who might not contribute in 2015 or 2016. To which I say: if you’re looking for an impact starting pitcher in the summer of 2014, the safest way to do that is to trade some excess prospects for an established starter in the winter of 2014.
And the best way to have excess prospects is TO DRAFT THE BEST PLAYERS AVAILABLE.
Four years ago, the Cincinnati Reds used the #7 overall pick on Yonder Alonso, a college first baseman. They did this even though they already had Joey Votto, who was a rookie on his way to finishing 2nd in the Rookie of the Year vote. This would be like the Royals drafting a college first baseman this year.
Two years later, the Reds used the #12 overall pick on Yasmani Grandal, a college catcher. They did this even though Devin Mesoraco – a high school catcher they had taken with their first-round pick in 2007 – was in the midst of a breakout season in the minors. (Mesoraco hit .302/.377/.587 between A-ball and Double-A.)
In both cases, the Reds drafted the best player available. And when they needed a pitcher, this past off-season, they simply packaged both players – along with veteran retread Edinson Volquez and minor-league reliever Brad Boxberger – to the Padres in exchange for an established, young, club-controlled starter in Mat Latos.
You might quibble over the details; there were legitimate concerns about Latos moving from the spacious confines of Petco Park to the bandbox that is the Great American Ballpark, and indeed Latos has a 4.91 ERA as I write this. But the principle is sound: draft for talent, and you can trade the talent to fill a need. Draft for need, and you might end up drafting Matt Stark because you really need a catcher, even though the guy at the top of your draft board is Roger Clemens. (Which actually happened.)
If Gausman or Zimmer is at the top of the Royals’ draft board when it’s their turn to pick, so be it. But if they’re not, drafting them just because they play a position of need on your current roster is madness. Much better to select…
Carlos Correa, a high school shortstop from Puerto Rico, who might just be the best player in this draft. Roughly comparable to Francisco Lindor in last year’s draft, or Machado the year before, Correa is a do-everything shortstop who might outgrow the position and move to third, but should have the bat for either position.
I have an obvious bias here, which is that Correa is just 17 years old, not turning 18 until September, and I wrote this last year. If I had researched and written that before last year’s draft, I would have strongly agitated for the Royals to take Lindor instead of Starling, who is 15 months older than him. And I’m quite certain that Lindor has surpassed Starling in the minds of almost everyone in the industry, given that Lindor is holding his own in the Midwest League at the age of 18, hitting .280/.329/.411 at the moment, while Starling is headed to short-season ball and has yet to swing a bat in anger as professional. Also, he’s older than Bryce Harper, and turns 20 in two months.
Kevin Goldstein has reported that my study has been the talk of more than a few front offices. It so happens that Correa, who was on the fringes of Top 10 consideration at the start of the season, is less than a 50/50 shot to even be on the board when the Royals pick. I’m not sure how much the former has to do with the latter; Correa has performed magnificently this year. I apologize if opening my big mouth means that Correa won’t be there when the Royals pick. On the other hand, if he’s already taken, at least it means there won’t be any second-guessing when the Royals pass on him.
The Royals’ draft preferences have become increasingly inscrutable as the draft has approached, and while I don’t think the Royals will take Correa, there have been at least some rumblings that if the board breaks right, they will take him. I hope they do. Maybe he doesn’t fill a need at a position, but he fills the one need every team has: potential star talent.
Mike Zunino is clearly the best college position player this year, largely because the crop of college hitters is, in the estimation of some scouts, the worst in 20 years. He’s a catcher at the University of Florida, and so might lead to a natural comp with Buster Posey, who was drafted out of Florida State. That’s too ambitious a comparison; the comp that’s thrown out there the most is that Zunino resembles a right-handed Jason Varitek: he’s not going to hit for average, but he’ll give you 20 homers, good plate discipline, and run a pitching staff. Not a star, but an above-average regular, and in this draft, that’s a heck of a player.
Originally thought to be a Top-3 pick, Zunino really struggled to hit once the SEC turned to conference play (although his numbers are still a robust .316/.388/.658), and he might fall as far as #8 now. He doesn’t have elite upside and the Royals already have a catcher signed from now until the apocalypse, but if he’s the best player on the board, he’s the best player on the board. There’s certainly nothing wrong with him at #5.
The Wild Cards
When you talk about wild cards in this draft, the discussion begins and mostly ends with Lucas Giolito. Three months ago, Giolito was the favorite to be the #1 overall pick. This would have been historic; he would have been the first high school right-hander in the history of the draft to be selected with the first pick.
For good reason: more than anyone else in this draft, he has the true ability to be a #1 starter in the majors. His fastball and curveball are elite; his changeup is well above-average; he’s 6-foot-6 and has a great work ethic. He’s not Dylan Bundy, but he was being talked about as just a tick below Bundy in terms of having a combination of tremendous upside and relatively little risk for a high school starter. I’ve also heard Josh Beckett comps, Beckett being the last high school right-hander to go #2 overall.
And then he sprained the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow in March. Let’s not beat around the bush: the UCL is the ligament you tear in Tommy John surgery. As my friend Will Carroll repeats incessantly, “A sprain is a tear,” which is to say, Giolito has a partial tear in his UCL.
He’s been rehabbing from the injury, and is back to throwing on flat ground, although he hasn’t thrown from a mound, and naturally that makes him an enormous risk. Also, there’s the matter of signability; his father is a Hollywood producer and they don’t need the money, so if he doesn’t get what he thinks he’s worth, he’ll go to UCLA and try again in three years.
Despite the risk, I’d rather have him than any other pitcher in this draft with the possible exception of Appel. We know all about UCLs and Tommy John surgery in Kansas City – more than we want to know. We know that Danny Duffy was pitching with a partial tear in his UCL for years before it gave out. We know that Giolito might be a Tommy John waiting to happen – he might need Tommy John right now. But you know what? So what. Give me the #1 starter, and I’ll wait the extra year for him to recover. Strasburg is doing just fine.
Other possibilities, in capsule form:
Max Fried is the second best high-school pitcher (and best left-hander) in the draft. He’s also just the second best pitcher at his high school – he’s Giolito’s teammate and fellow UCLA commit. He has polish and good secondary pitches, but his fastball ranges from the upper 80s to the low 90s. He’s projectable, and if the velocity comes, he could be great. This means nothing, but the last time the draft was this unsettled at the top, in 2006 when the Royals took Luke Hochevar, there was some talk that a high-school left-hander should be in the discussion for the #1 overall pick. If the Royals had taken Clayton Kershaw, I wouldn’t have to curse at my iPhone every fifth day.
I wasn’t even planning to mention Albert Almora, but just a few minutes ago Frankie Piliere of Scout.com tweeted that the Royals are suddenly taking a close look at him. Almora is a high school outfielder from Florida who is about as low-risk as a high school player can be: he has tons of experience playing on USA National teams, so he’s faced top-flight competition, and all of his tools grade out as average or better – and he projects to stay in center field. He doesn’t have Buxton’s tools, but is a better bet to actualize them. If Buxton has a 25% chance to be a superstar, Almora has a 50% chance to be a star. Given that the Royals already have Starling in their system, Almora would diversify their portfolio in the outfield nicely.
Hopefully this is the last time I mention Michael Wacha, who seems to be the consolation prize if the top three college pitchers are all gone. Wacha is a right-hander at Texas A&M; there’s nothing inherently wrong with him, but he’s a mid-round talent, not a #5 overall pick. There was chatter that the Royals were looking at him as a backup plan earlier, but that chatter thankfully seems to have died down.
Lance McCullers has been on draft radars for a few years now, which is unusual for a high school player, though not so unusual when you consider his dad pitched in the majors. McCullers throws as hard as anyone in this draft, but until this season had future reliever written all over him – he was even used as a reliever in high school. But this year he has started and has made some scouts change their minds as to his upside. His slider is almost as impressive as his fastball; despite being a two-pitch pitcher at this point, there are some who think he could make it as a starter, and potentially as an elite one. He’s more of a mid-round talent overall, but the Royals have been linked to him.
In a previous draft, selecting someone like McCullers would have been upsetting. But with the new rules in place, if the Royals take McCullers with the agreement that he’ll sign for, say, $2.5 million, then use that extra $1 million on later picks, that’s a perfectly acceptable use of their resources. If he is the pick, you have to assume the Royals think he can start. High risk, but potentially very high reward.
Marcus Stroman is a very interesting pitcher – a college pitcher out of Duke, he has fantastic stuff and fantastic results, both at Duke and for Team USA last summer. But he’s 5-foot-9, which has most teams projecting him as a reliever, albeit an impact guy along the lines of Tom Gordon, and someone who could be in the majors by September. Like McCullers, if the Royals are convinced he can start, and work out a deal, he could save them some money without compromising on talent. Unlike McCullers, he could also be as quick to the major leagues as anyone in this draft.
Who would I take? With the usual caveat that I Am Not A Scout, here’s how I’d line them up:
1) Carlos Correa. A 17-year-old shortstop who can hit? His career could develop in so many ways, almost all of them good.
2) Mark Appel. The combination of upside and relative safety is hard to resist.
3) Byron Buxton. Buxton and Starling would be the toolsiest outfield in the minor leagues.
4) Lucas Giolito. Unless the medicals are worse than we’re told, the potential for a #1 starter is worth the risk.
5) Mike Zunino. Not sexy, but safe, and two-way catchers are gold on the trade market.
6) Kevin Gausman. He won’t be an ace, but there’s nothing wrong with a #2 starter – if he gets there.
7) Albert Almora. Not sexy, but safe, and centerfielders with average or better tools across the board are gold on the trade market.
8) Kyle Zimmer. He won’t be an ace, but there’s nothing wrong with a #2 starter – if he gets there.
9) Max Fried. Apparently, the Royals still need left-handed pitching, and he could be a good one.
10) Marcus Stroman or Lance McCullers. If you believe either one can start, and can work out a favorable deal before the draft, this is a legitimate option.
Who do I think the Royals will take? Even the experts don’t have confidence in their pick, though they were leaning to Zimmer before the weekend. Kevin Goldstein had the Royals taking Zimmer Friday morning, then switched to Fried Friday night. Keith Law has Zimmer there, but also mentions Gausman, Fried, and even McCullers. Jim Callis at Baseball America has the Royals with Zimmer as well.
Of course, things may have changed over the weekend. I think all three guys will have an updated mock draft out sometime Monday, but I get the sense that Zimmer is hardly a lock. Here’s how I’d handicap it:
Kyle Zimmer: 24%
Kevin Gausman: 20%
Carlos Correa: 13%
Mike Zunino: 12%
Max Fried: 9%
Albert Almora: 7%
Lucas Giolito: 6%
Byron Buxton: 3%
Mark Appel: 1%
The Field: 5%
The only thing I’m certain of is that, when the draft begins at 6 PM CST, I’ll be riveted to every pick.